Prepare to Be Insulted!

You’re at a small party and someone – someone you barely know – makes a snarky comment about you that elicits laughter from everyone else. You’re embarrassed. Then enraged. But you can think of no quick and clever reply to put him in his place.

Later, of course, you think of half a dozen zingers.

It happens to all of us. And that is why it is worth taking an occasional dip into the bracing waters of invective. Not only to remind ourselves of some of the great insults of the past, but perhaps to memorize them for future use.

Following is a brief selection of some of my favorites (real and apocryphal)…

Category #1: The witty comeback

George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill

“I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one.”

Churchill, in response

“Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second… if there is one.”

Member of Parliament to Disraeli

“Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.”

Disraeli in response

“That depends, Sir, whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”


Category #2: The non-specific riposte

“I don’t know what your problem is, but I’m guessing it’s hard to pronounce.”

“Do you ever wonder what life would be like if you’d gotten enough oxygen at birth?”

“Please, keep talking. I only yawn when I’m super fascinated.”

“If I threw a stick, you’d leave, right?”


Category #3: The third-person barb

Winston Churchill

“He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”

Walter Kerr (my godfather, by the way)

“He had delusions of adequacy.”

Oscar Wilde

“He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.”

Irvin S. Cobb

“I’ve just learned about his illness. Let’s hope it’s nothing trivial.”

Billy Wilder

“He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.”


And, finally…

Category #4: Clever insults that can liven up a pause in the conversation

Clarence Darrow

“I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”

Mark Twain

“I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of It.”